You may not believe it, but Mike Pelfrey is getting better as the season goes on. Sure, that's easy to say after he notched his first win of the year against the Chicago White Sox in his last start, but Pelfrey's improvement has been building for longer than that. He has a 3.18 ERA in his last five starts, with 17 strikeouts to eight walks allowed in 28 1/3 innings.
While this is a bit unsustainable -- he won't continue stranding 80 percent of runners he allows on base -- there are other trends that should help offset the bit of on-base luck he is having right now. Through the first month of the season, Pelfrey allowed hard contact on 42.3 percent of balls in play, according to FanGraphs. That figure has declined to just 26.3 percent since May 1, which is below the league average of 31.1 percent. His ground ball rate has improved to 49.6 percent, and his line drive rate has dropped from 24.7 percent to just 20.6 percent.
The $16 million question, however, is whether this translates to the starter that the Tigers thought they were getting when they signed him in December. His recent results seem to hint as such, and advanced metrics like xFIP and SIERA peg him in the mid-4s, which many fans would gladly accept.
Can he keep it going on Friday against the Yankees?
Detroit Tigers (30-29) at New York Yankees (30-30)
Time/Place: 7:05 p.m., Yankee Stadium
SB Nation blog: Pinstripe Alley
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB Network, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: RHP Mike Pelfrey (1-5, 4.76 ERA) vs. RHP CC Sabathia (3-4, 2.58 ERA)
Last we saw CC Sabathia, a lot of people thought he was too old and washed up to be an effective starting pitcher again. Yankees fans were hoping CC would be moved to the bullpen, and the rest of baseball was ready to treat him like a punching bag.
Meanwhile, Sabathia got the last laugh, holding the Tigers to three runs over six innings in an 8-4 Yankees win at Comerica Park on April 9. He has only gotten better since then, holding opponents to a 2.58 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in nine starts this year. He tossed five shutout innings in his last start, and has only allowed five runs (three earned) in his last 31 innings, a 0.87 ERA.
How has Sabathia improved? For that, we lean on FanGraphs' Corrine Landrey.
This year, he’s made an adjustment that’s even more drastic. Sabathia is still using his sinker, but the four-seam fastball that was the centerpiece of his repertoire for so long has been scrapped and replaced with a cutter. Sabathia’s status as a Yankee means that during Spring Training he was even able to consult with a man who is arguably the world’s foremost expert on pitching with a cutter: Mariano Rivera...The biggest thing the cutter has done for Sabathia this season is bolster his repertoire against right-handed batters. He’s using the pitch against righties and lefties both, but against righties it’s become his most used pitch.
Righties are hitting just .229 with absolutely no power against Sabathia this season, and a .287 BABIP hints that he's not even getting all that lucky to maintain such excellent splits.
Hitter to fear: Brian McCann (.465/.549/.791 in 51 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Starlin Castro (.200/.333/.200 in 6 plate appearances)
Speaking of punching bags, take a look at what Brian McCann has done to poor Mike Pelfrey in their respective careers. McCann has abused the former Mets righthander, collecting 20 hits in 43 at-bats, including eight doubles and a pair of home runs. The rest of the Yankees aren't far behind, though without the same power McCann has put on display. Alex Rodriguez, Brett Gardner, Chase Headley, and Jacoby Ellsbury are all hitting above .300 in at least nine plate appearances against Pelfrey.
Prior to their last meeting eight days ago, we noted that the Yankees' offense was struggling something awful. However, it appears to be a function of where they are playing. The Yankees have scored 139 of their 241 runs at home this year, even though they have played a couple more games on the road. Yankee Stadium has been a safe haven for the Bronx Bombers, where they have won 12 of their past 17 games. Meanwhile, the Tigers have struggled on the road, compiling a 4-9 record over the past month. Between these splits and Sabathia's newfound dominance over right-handed hitters, it could be a long night (and potentially a long series) for the Tigers.
Sabathia and the Yankees win their fifth in a row.
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